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Culture / Sporting Life

Gregg Popovich Surrenders to Rockets, Knowing He’s Overmatched

Desperate Playoff Resting Proves Mike D’Antoni’s Scheme is Better

BY // 05.08.17

Gregg Popovich rarely moved. He barely flinched. The San Antonio Spurs’ Jedi Master just sat there on the bench stone faced and seemingly furious. Even as his team pulled within 14 points with almost nine minutes remaining in a completely up-and-down, fast paced and scoring furious game, he never looked to his best player.

Popovich just left Kawhi Leonard to sit on the bench and stew. Assuming a robot is capable of stewing.

It is a curious choice for a playoff game in a competitive, either way series at first blush. These Houston Rockets are more than capable of giving up points in bunches. But Popovich knows the real score. When Mike D’Antoni’s team is raining down threes and running his innovative offense the way it’s supposed to be run, Pop’s Spurs have no shot.

So he sits and rests Kawhi Leonard for an entire fourth quarter even when logic dictates he still has a real opportunity to make it a game. Popovich essentially waves a white flag right there — at 103-89 with 8:40 remaining after a Manu Ginobili flashback 3 and a Jonathan Simmons driving lauyp  — in an attempt to give himself a better chance on Tuesday night.

Four games into this series, it’s clear that the Rockets at their best are better than the Spurs at their best. Houston has a much better shot at making the Western Conference Finals at least a tad interesting than San Antonio does. The Spurs don’t have anything close to the firepower necessary to hang with the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry/Kevin Durant juggernaut. They can’t even stay within range of Houston on a night when the Rockets are hitting their shots.

“If you had seen clips of our transition D, you would have traded all the players and fired me by the end of the game,” Popovich says after Rockets 125, Spurs 104 on Sunday night at Toyota Center. “It was that bad.”

So is the matchup for San Antonio.

D’Antoni’s team simply has too much speed and too much shooting for a team that’s starting Pau Gasol and Danny Green — and relying on David Lee for significant minutes off the bench (and thinking of playing a fumbling Dewayne Dedmon). Game 1s and 4 in this 2-2 series aren’t the aberrations. They’re what this matchup looks like when the Rockets play anything above decent.

Kawhi Leonard could not keep with James Harden in Game 4. Then, he found himself resting on the bench.

Houston’s the better team with the better coaching scheme, but that doesn’t guarantee it will win the series. Popovich only needs a superhuman performance from Kawhi in Game 5 to give the Spurs a real look at getting swept by the Warriors in the next round. He’s apparently betting that essentially resting Leonard in the middle of a playoff series will help produce that game.

Key Rockets like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon — and even Trevor Ariza — are notoriously inconsistent. Betting on two off shooting nights in the next three games from this bunch isn’t the craziest of lifelines. And it’s the only one Popovich has. When the Rockets are operating D’Antoni’s gameplans as designed and the Spurs are operating Popovich’s gameplans as designed, there really is no contest. Houston’s superior.

“When we’re out in transition, their defense plan doesn’t really matter,” D’Antoni says. “There is no defensive plan in transition. It’s run back and try and match up.”

D’Antoni won’t say it, but he knows Popovich’s Spurs simply cannot match up to his Rockets.

Simmons, the Houston native and former University of Houston player who needs to play more if Popovich has any shot at adding to his “genius” legend in this series, puts his team’s dilemma even more starkly. “Hope they miss,” Simmons says when asked about the Spurs’ counter to the Rockets’ 3-point barrages.

D‘Antoni deserves every bit of the spontaneous standing ovation he gets from the Toyota Center crowd when he’s announced as the co-winner of NBCA Coach of the Year Award (with the Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra) on Sunday night. He’s made this reality possible, turning James Harden into a much more efficient weapon (28 points on 10 for 18 shooting, including three of the most cold-blooded pull-up 3s you’ll ever see, 12 assists and a plus-28 rating in Game 4) than anyone ever imagined. D’Antoni’s still making a new NBA world order possible more than a decade after he changed everything in Phoenix.

Any basketball fan praying for an interesting series in the NBA’s final four should be rooting for D’Antoni’s team against the Spurs. Because it sure doesn’t look like one will happen in the Eastern Conference Finals. And if you think the math doesn’t work for the Spurs against the Rockets, imagine it against Golden State.

The loss of Nene for the rest of the playoffs takes away one of D’Antoni’s chess pieces. But it doesn’t come close to changing the basic underlying truth of this series. Everything is a struggle for San Antonio. Gregg Popovich needs to turn to coaching tricks and impromptu desperate playoff resting to give his guys a shot. The Rockets are the better team with the much better scheme.

It’s time to squash the bug once and for all and prove it.

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